From left back row: Mark Lyness, Lectra UK; Jenny Holloway, Fashion Enter; Ian Simes, J Barbour & Sons; Julie King, ASBCI event chairman; James Dracup, Johnstons of Elgin; Sangita Khan, Buff Clothing; Eddie Jones,  Kufner Textil; Michael Bentley, NWTexnet; Michael Stoll, Cooper & Stollbrand; Katie Greenyer, Pentland Group; Jonny Mitchell, Courtaulds Brands; Michael Spenley, Compliance Direct Company and
Daniel Hanson, Daniel Hanson

From left back row: Mark Lyness, Lectra UK; Jenny Holloway, Fashion Enter; Ian Simes, J Barbour & Sons; Julie King, ASBCI event chairman; James Dracup, Johnstons of Elgin; Sangita Khan, Buff Clothing; Eddie Jones, Kufner Textil; Michael Bentley, NWTexnet; Michael Stoll, Cooper & Stollbrand; Katie Greenyer, Pentland Group; Jonny Mitchell, Courtaulds Brands; Michael Spenley, Compliance Direct Company and Daniel Hanson, Daniel Hanson

The feasibility of reviving the UK manufacturing sector and moving garment production back onshore has been a key topic of discussion among British brands and retailers. While niche and high-end firms like cashmere specialist Johnstons of Elgin and countrywear brand J Barbour & Sons are synonymous with UK-based production, it can also be done for high street brands on a large scale, industry experts suggest.

In its heyday, UK manufacturing was responsible for the majority of clothing sold in the country. However, "offshore manufacturing came in at a pace" as an "irresistible force," Michael Spenley, director of Shop Direct subsidiary Compliance Direct told delegates at a conference organised by the Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry (ASBCI) last week.

But now, faced with rising costs in Asia and a need for faster turnaround times, the tide appears to be turning - with many companies talking about increasing the amount they source in the UK. 

Jonny Mitchell, managing director of legwear at Courtaulds Brands, believes having a combination of UK and offshore facilities provides companies with the best mix. "We cannot rely solely on Made in the UK. Yes it's a great tag to put alongside our products but it doesn't guarantee anything," he said.

Mitchell said volume combined with innovation is key to manufacturing in the UK, describing it as the company's "bread and butter".

However, there is one aspect that deters retailers and manufacturers from "falling in love" with the 'Made in Britain' tag, he said. "It's about price. We can't get away from price."

Niche market
"Double dip recession, commodity prices at historically high levels, developing markets slowing down and economic malaise and lack of confidence in most global consumer markets," have challenged cashmere specialist Johnstons of Elgin. 

There is a future for manufacturing in the UK for niche markets through innovation, good quality and production flexibility, said the group's managing director James Dracup.

But it needs to be done "slowly, well and long-term," he emphasised.

"The luxury customers who are our target market require constant innovation - we have to create the need to buy, be it in terms of composition, colour, texture, aesthetics or new products entirely," he added. 

Michael Stoll, managing director of premium outerwear maker Cooper & Stollbrand agreed British manufacturers need to "aim at the rich people".

"The money is at the top and not at the bottom," Stoll said, referring to brands like Prada and Ralph Lauren. He added that volume production "is only repetition."

Mass production for high street brands
Sangita Khan, creative design director at Leicester-based clothing manufacturer Buff Clothing, and Jenny Holloway, owner of training organisation Fashion Enter, believe UK manufacturers can sell to British high street retailers and still make a profit.

Khan, who employs 30 workers, believes British manufacturers can compete on a large scale if the buyer understands just what can be made in the UK. Holloway, who has worked with the likes of Asos, New Look and Topshop agrees, and said Fashion Enter has produced 35,000 units for Asos over a prolonged period.

Quicker lead times are a key reason why retailers should source large volumes in the UK, Khan said. "We can hold fabric and react quickly to different style requirements in the same fabric, should sales drop off of the original style," she added.

"As a result, production issues can be ironed out before the bulk is produced." 

Ethical aspect
However, Michael Spenley, director of Shop Direct subsidiary Compliance Direct, says buyers are misguided by the view that offshore sourcing is not ethical, while UK manufacturing is. Compliance Direct only has five of its 400 factories in the UK because of prices. 

"We can't find factories that can do our prices, our volumes, our quality and the ethical component," he added.

One UK factory Spenley visited was in a derelict school, which was also being used as living accommodation, while another only had one machinist because others had been taken ill with tuberculosis. 

"There have been a lot of improvements offshore," he said. "These days, we don't perceive China to be the risk it once was."

"We feel quite comfortable when Chinese manufacturers come to us."  

Despite continued enthusiasm for bringing manufacturing back to the UK, Spenley said companies should temper their optimism.

"UK manufacturing offers lots of opportunities but the suppliers' costs are high and margins are narrow and where there are narrow margins, there are short cuts and risks."

"We're all for it but we are treading carefully and cautiously," he added.